On Ta-Nehisi Coates And The Very Real Danger Of "Writing While Black"

Craig Barritt/Getty Images for the Stella Adler Studio of Acting
Craig Barritt/Getty Images for the Stella Adler Studio of Acting

I wouldn't dare compare my level of popularity to the very real (and much scarier) fame Ta-Nehisi Coates possesses. But when reading his "On Homecomings" yesterday — where he lamented that he was forced to back out of buying his dream house in Brooklyn because of safety concerns stemming from his address being widely publicized — two recent experiences came to mind.


1.  While in the airport two weeks ago waiting to board a flight to New York for the Black Lives Matter panel, I stopped at Bar Symon to get breakfast. I sat at the bar. While there, I noticed two White women sitting towards the end of the bar. One of them looked at me, smiled, and then said something to her friend. I kept eating. Glance back a few moments later, and the same thing happens. And, a few moments after that, once of them spoke:

"Hey, are you Damon Young?"

It turns out that both women are fans of VSB. One even expressed that she got into arguments with her family over Wendy Bell, and really appreciated what I said about her. Apparently they recognized me from a picture they'd seen of me. (Which surprised me because I'm much hairier now than I am in my profile pic. Also, I was wearing a suit that day, not one of my "I Love Bougie Black Girls" uniforms.) We talked for a few more moments, and then I left and walked to my gate.

2. I'm walking my dog at midnight. I sense a car slowing next to me. Before I even turn to see who it is, I clench up, my heart starts racing, and I start mentally preparing for what to do next. Even quickly scanned the sidewalk for shit to throw if I have to. I look through the driver's window. It's dark, though, so I can't really see anything. Right when the "so…should I be running now?" thought hits me, I hear a voice:

"Hey, are you Damon Young?"

Apparently this guy is a fan of VSB, and recognized me. He knew I lived in the area, thought it was me, but wanted to confirm. As my heartbeat slowed to a manageable rate, we talked for a few more moments before he drove off.

As VSB has grown — and as my own name has become more known — the thought of safety, both what it means and the relationship my work has with it, has become more prominent. If fans can spot me at 6am in airports and on poorly lit streets at midnight, people who know who I am but are definitely not fans could do the same. Which is especially disconcerting because I write very often about race and racism and the police and many of the things I say are, well, uncomfortable for many to hear.

And I live in a predominately White city. And I have a wife and a daughter.

And I'll admit today that while my increased prominence has led to numerous opportunities, I've passed some up specifically because of those concerns. Most notably an invitation to appear on WTAE to speak on a piece I wrote about police dogs. I just didn't feel it was very smart to have my face attached to that topic.


Complicating things — internally, at least — is the fact that I feel self-conscious about admitting any of that. Even as I write this I don't quite feel like I should. Because what kind of Black writer am I if I’m not fearless? If I’m not always willing to put my face on TV and in hundreds of thousands of living rooms and actually speak the uncomfortable words I write? Also, I’m a man. Which means whichever threats to my safety — real or perceived — I feel pale in comparison to what Black women who write about race and racism face. Me being concerned about any of this feels, well, weak.

This dynamic is also a bit of a paradox. Because both the increased prominence and the opportunities that come from it often lead to more opportunities to make money. Which gives me a greater flexibility to provide for my family. And an enhanced ability to protect it.


But I can't deny the reality. This is a real concern. Does it permeate my every thought? No. Does it determine what I decide to write about? Not really. But does it exist, and it is something that lurks when I'm walking my dog or driving with my daughter? Yes. Yes it does.

A paragraph in Coates's piece expresses this dynamic — which, admittedly, borders on a neurosis — perfectly:

But the world is real. And you can’t really be a black writer in this country, take certain positions, and not think about your personal safety. That’s just the history. And you can’t really be a human being and not want some place to retreat into yourself, some place to collapse, some place to be at peace. That’s just neurology. One shouldn’t get in the habit of crying about having a best-selling book. But you can’t really sell enough books to become superhuman, to salve that longing for home.


I don't really have a solution here. The only thing I plan on changing about what I do and how I do it is building this platform and having it reach an even larger audience. Which means there will be more hate mail, more angry tweets, and more racist comments and Facebook messages. Which, I'll admit, tend to entertain me. I'm tickled, even, by some.

Until its midnight and a car pulls up next to me, and I remember these were sent by real people.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)


Ess da 5'6"

After I read TNC's piece, I could only ask "What now?"

He and his family backed out of the brownstone purchase because that information became widely know. Aren't all RE buys (kind of, sort of) part of public record? How do TNC, his wife, and his son ensure that whatever move they make next doesn't get published in whatever blog? That's fear in perpetuity right there.